Gothic Culture: The Pleasures of Extreme Emotion
Back when I was a pre-teen (in the early 2000s), “Goth” referred to those kids with super straight, super dark sweepy bangs, who shopped at Hot Topic, listened to music that sounded like anguish, and carried the reputation of being scary — not because they would pick fights, but because they were somehow internally volatile.
Little did I know, the so-called “Goth” kids at the mall represented the Disney-fication of a genuine subculture hundreds of years in the making. And though its specifics can change radically from setting to setting, the Goth aesthetic is as easily recognizable as ever.
Pastel goth? That’s a thing.
The Showtime series Penny Dreadful? Gothic.
How about the Batman movies? YUP.
What all these things have in common is a shared focus on horror, death, and romance. In short, the Gothic operates on the pleasure of extreme emotion. There’s something alluring about darkness, and every iteration of the Gothic plays on these themes.
But where did all this doom and gloom start?
To understand modern day Goth culture, we need to go back to the dawn of the Middle Ages, which began in 476 A.D., with the fall of the mighty Roman Empire. While a number of factors contributed to Rome’s decline, the primary cause was the military intervention of two barbarian tribes, the Ostrogoths and Visigoths.
Appropriately, then, the Middle Ages gave way to what historians call the Gothic period. Gothic art in the Middle Ages expanded to include illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Hours, religious statuettes, and paintings. But the true treasure of the Gothic period is its architecture. Pointed arches and flying buttresses, castles and cathedrals—oh my!
These imposing structures were being built during tumultuous times, to say the least. In addition to erecting a ton of Gothic architecture, people in the Middle Ages had to worry about famine, the Crusades, and the Black Death. (Not all at once, of course).
Cultural memory in the Middle Ages was saturated with hardship. In such complicated times, beauty and darkness, and pleasure and guilt, went hand in hand.
Then came the Renaissance, bringing with it Enlightenment and Exploration. But despite the pull of logic, a persistent desire to indulge the question “What if…” remained.
“The edges of the map were being filled in and nobody was finding any dragons. The human mind required a replacement” - Clive Bloom, Gothic Histories: The Taste of Terror (2010)
When Gothic architecture experienced a revival in the 18th century, the creepy, gorgeous, terrifying structures became the perfect backdrop for creepy, gorgeous, terrifying stories.
The first recorded work of Gothic literature is credited to British author, Horace Walpole, the son of the first British prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
Horace was just, like, sooo Goth. In 1749, he commissioned the construction of a consummate Gothic Revival estate named the Strawberry Hill House. Then, in 1764, he penned the novel, The Castle of Otranto, which introduced elements that would become the stuff of Gothic cliché: secret passages, trap doors, pictures that moved on their own, ancient prophecies, a woman in distress, and an aura of doom and gloom wrapped up in an old castle. In other words, he practically wrote the rulebook for the Goth novel.
But if Horace Walpole is the daddy of gothic literature, then Ann Radcliffe is definitely its mother. She pioneered tricks like the explained supernatural — when the something that goes “bump” in the night turns out to be a tree branch rattling the window and not a spirit. She’s also responsible for my personal favorite, the Byronic hero. Inspired by literary bad boy, Lord Byron, these characters are those sexy problem children you don’t want to know, but can’t seem to help getting close to. Sound familiar?
Radcliffe also paved the way for the Female Gothic, in which “female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest, and the threatening control of the male antagonist” are the dark forces to be contended with. Essentially, these heroines had nothing to fear but spiritual suffocation at the invisible hands of the patriarchy. (That old chestnut!)
This would prove to be one of the Gothic’s most lasting sub-genres, appearing in the works of authors from Mary Shelley and Charlotte Brontë—and, more recently, the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
But don’t worry, women weren’t the only ones getting off on fear.
By the 19th century, the pervasive fear of industrialization manifested itself in a whole new fad: the Urban Gothic. Set in cities rather than remote castles, these stories juxtaposed affluent “civilized society” with that of the disorderly underclass, all while managing to cultivate a creepy vibe rooted firmly in the Gothic tradition.
While Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and Bram Stoker (Dracula) pioneered the sub-genre, moody cityscapes are still routinely used to set the stage for some of our darkest modern dystopias. Indeed, modern horror films (and even superhero movies) owe a great deal to Urban Gothic novels.
But what in the name of Dorian Gray, you may be asking, does any of this have to do with the kids wearing all black at the mall in 2003?
Once the Gothic literary tradition had set along its merry way, branching off into ever more horrifying directions (Southern Goth, Weird Fiction, on and on), music took its turn.
As with so many categories, the label “Goth” was imposed externally onto bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Bauhaus, and The Cure — all of whom considered themselves more punk than anything else. In fact, Gary Marx, of the pioneering, yet still accidentally goth band Sisters of Mercy told The Guardian that their dreary style was mostly practical.
“Wearing nothing but black meant the band could put all their washing in one load.”
Still, fiercely dark music paired with romantically introspective lyrics defined a whole new genre that would quickly give rise to the broad subculture we recognize today.
These days, that breadth manifests in all sorts of other ways. Some folks are into occult stuff. Others have generally morbid taste. Still others infuse their glamorous darkness with sweet feminine adornments.
But what they all have in common is a love of toeing the line between romance and horror—the desperation to survive in a place that’s decaying all around you. And as long as humans are interested in walking that line, the fingerprints of the Gothic will remain all over our works of culture for decades, probably even centuries, to come.